I am travelling again, my last trip before radiotherapy begins. I squint at this computer on my lap in a dark plane, most of those around me somehow capable of sleeping through the turbulence that makes this aircraft feel more like a boat on a choppy sea.
I boarded my plane in Wellington, a little sad because I was saying goodbye for a couple of months to Naomi, who will be back at wintery college before I return to summery Wellington. I have been struck by how lovely it is to be around Naomi, by how much I want to stroke her hair or hug her. While she is on the other side of the world, we are in excellent touch with each other and talk or text just about every day. I can tell you about her professors and her friends and often what she had for dinner. But still, having her in person was like an icy drink on a sweltering day. We begin the parent/child relationship with so much physical contact as we hold our babies, nurse them, bathe them. And now that she’s 19, there is some ancient piece of me that wants to sit in close proximity, watch her sleep, hear her laughter from the other room. I will miss that.
It was in that melancholy mood that I boarded the first plane of my journey, the short and familiar hop to Australia. I admit that there was a small sigh when I saw that the person in the aisle next to me had been preboarded in a wheelchair. This would make getting in and out of my seat difficult and who knew what my companion would be like, whether she would play by the modern rules of air travel that prescribe that two people in very close quarters ignore each other entirely until the plane is safely on the ground at the new destination.
I had Important Work to do on the plane—the manuscript of a friend’s book to finish and think about and give feedback on. To hold the manuscript of another in your hand is not unlike holding their baby. It is sacred work, and my friend deserved my full attention.
But, in a totally uncharacteristic move on my part, I was also inexplicably drawn to my seat mate. After scrambling past her to my window, I broke my own rules and I talked with her! I asked her about her travels, whether she would stay in Australia or go on. Her light Scottish lilt suggested a longer journey, and so it was—away since October, Sally had been on a world wide tour of friends and family (most recently her youngest daughter in Wellington). Over the course of the four hour flight, we talked about her children, her grand children, her husband, dead these last 20 years. I found her fascinating. The twinkle in her eye, the combination of soft granny and tough Scot, her outlook on aging.
I think a lot about aging and the aged, in ways I think are utterly different than they would have been if I had not had cancer. In our youth-obsessed society people are constantly getting messages about how aging is ugly or problematic, and we have lost touch with what our ancestors knew—that aging is also a gift.
Sally knew much better than I know the privilege of aging. Her husband had died totally unexpectedly of a major heart attack at 61. She has held her grandchildren and watched them learn to walk and sat at their college graduations without him. She knows that to stay on the planet a long time gives you access to delights denied to those who leave it sooner.
And, much better than I, Sally knows the indignities of age. “It’s hard when you begin to lose things you used to be able to do without thinking,” she confided. She was embarrassed about the wheel chair that brought her on board. “I can walk, you know,” she told me, almost apologetically. “It’s just that I shattered my ankle some years ago and my balance isn’t as steady as I’d like. And in an airport with a bag, I never know how far it’s going to be to get to where I need to go next. It’s safer to take a wheelchair. But I can walk. At home I walk my Labrador each day.”
Yesterday, in my melancholy mood, I read a wonderful piece in the New York Times by Jon Mooallem about B. J. Miller, a palliative care doctor, and the hospice centre he created. Miller was set on this path in college when he had a horrific accident that cost him both legs and an arm and nearly killed him. Miller realized, Mooallem, writes, that before his accident he had seen unhappiness “as an illegitimate intrusion into the carefree reality he was supposed to inhabit. And don’t we all do that, he realized. Don’t we all treat suffering as a disruption to existence, instead of an inevitable part of it. He wondered what would happen if you could “reincorporate your version of reality, of normalcy, to accommodate suffering.”…He worked hard to see himself as merely sitting somewhere on a continuum between the man on his deathbed and the woman who misplaced her car keys, to let his accident heighten his connectedness to others, instead of isolating him.”
Somehow all these strands came together for me high above the Tasman Sea. The juxtaposition of B.J. Miller’s story and leaving Naomi and sitting next to Sally and holding a dear friend’s manuscript made me think about the many ways we are connected, the many ways we are mortal, the ways suffering is a part of our lives and not a diversion from them in the way that joy is part of our lives, that love is part of our lives. We all sit on that continuum of misery between the man on his deathbed and the woman who had misplaced her car keys. We all sit on the continuum of delight between the couple holding their perfect new baby and the man who appreciates, however fleetingly, the feel of the sun on the back of his neck. And we all live each day somewhere on an indeterminate point between our birth and our death.
Our bodies are one piece of who we are, and we organize around them enormously—and for good reason. They define the boundaries of our life and death as we make sense of things. When our bodies hurt, we suffer. When our bodies thrive, we often ignore them entirely. We compare them with others. We watch them shift and change with age. We regret what we have lost.
But there are so many other pieces of us. The lives we change. The words we write. The children whose hair we stroke. The moments of intersection and connection—with a stranger, with a lover, with a memory. My cousin James—who has been gone more than two years now—still gets posts on his facebook memorial page, and I think about him every day. I have been rereading E. M. Forster and feeling his breath in my ear, though he died the year I was born. And Sally, who has passed out of my life, probably forever, will get up in Sydney this morning and meet with friends she hasn’t seen in 14 years. I don’t think she’ll know that I carry her with me now too, and now, by extension, you carry her as well.
I think what I am saying is a thing I have said before and a thing I hope I will say again. It is perhaps the thing we are always trying to say, perhaps the only thing to say. And the philosopher Susan Christ says it in a way that I wrote down in my journal in college and that still speaks to me 30 years later.
“This whole is the earth and the sky, the ground on which we stand, and all the animals, plants, and other beings to which we are related. We come from earth and to earth we shall return. Life feeds on life. We live because others die, and we will die so that others may live. The divinity that shapes our ends is life, death, and change, understood both literally and as a metaphor for our daily lives.…Knowledge that we are but a small part of life and death and transformation is the essential religious insight. The essential religious response is to rejoice and to weep, to sing and to dance, to tell stories and create rituals in praise of an existence far more complicated, more intricate, more enduring than we are.”